Last Updated: 9/12/06

Prisoners' Ruse is Suspected at Guantanamo

By David S. Cloud and Neil A. Lewis
June 12, 2006

WASHINGTON, June 11 -Three detainees at the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, tried to conceal themselves in their cells - behind laundry and through other means - to prevent guards from seeing them commit suicide, a senior military official said Sunday.

Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, commander of the United States Southern Command, at a news conference on Saturday addressing the suicides of three prisoners at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Yasser Talal Abdulah Yahya al-Zahrani, one of the detainees who committed suicide early Saturday.

One of the prisoners hanged himself behind laundry drying from the ceiling of the cell, and had arranged his bed to make it look as if he was still sleeping, said the official, Lt. Cmdr. Robert T. Durand of the Navy. The other two detainees who committed suicide also took steps to prevent guards from seeing that they had put nooses around their necks, he added.

The deception by the prisoners raises questions about how long it took military guards to discover the bodies. Regulations at Guantánamo call for guards to check on each inmate every two minutes.

Military officials said one focus of an investigation into the suicides would be the need for procedural changes, like barring prisoners from doing laundry in their cells.

Gen. Bantz J. Craddock of the Army, who oversees Guantánamo as commander of the United States Southern Command, told reporters on Sunday that the investigation into the deaths "kind of boils down to two things: Are the procedures that you have in place adequate, and then were the procedures followed to the standards?"

The Pentagon identified the three detainees as two Saudis, Mani bin Shaman bin Turki al-Habardi, 30, and Yasser Talal Abdulah Yahya al-Zahrani, 22, and a Yemeni, Ali Abdullah Ahmed, 33.

Reaction around the world seemed muted, though the Liberal Democratic Leader in Britain, Sir Menzies Campbell, said he was thinking about touring Guantánamo and repeated his criticism of the policy of detaining suspects without sending them to trial.

Democrats in the United States said little, apparently concerned about appearing to be sympathizing with detainees who could turn out to have significant terrorist connections.

White House officials described the three men as committed terrorists, and military officials said that none had been among the handful of prisoners whose cases had been brought before military commissions for prosecution.

The Pentagon released a statement describing Mr. Ahmed, the Yemeni, as a "mid to high-level Al Qaeda operative" who was close to Abu al-Zubaydah, a senior figure for Al Qaeda who has since been captured. The statement also said that Mr. Habardi was a member of a terrorist group that recruits for Al Qaeda, and had been recommended for transfer to another country, presumably Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon said that Mr. Zahrani had been "a frontline fighter for the Taliban" and had participated in the prison uprising in 2001 at Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of Johnny Micheal Spann, a C.I.A. operative.

The suicides renew the question of what the Bush administration will do with the detention center at Guantánamo, which President Bush has told interviewers recently that he would like to close at some point in the future.

The timing appears postponed, however.

"You can't have a final disposition about Guantánamo until the Supreme Court has ruled on the Hamdan case," said Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, referring to a pending decision on whether detainees at Guantánamo may be tried as war criminals before military commissions and whether they may challenge their detentions in federal courts.

Military officials said they had translated notes left by the prisoners, but the officials refused to describe the contents of the messages. All three men were in the same cellblock in 6-by-8-foot cells that were not adjoining but had wire-mesh walls, which might have enabled them to communicate, officials said.

Speaking by telephone from the Saudi holy city of Medina, Talal Abdallah al-Zahrani, 50, the father of Mr. Zahrani, said that when he heard from his son in a recent letter, he sounded in good spirits and appeared to be more optimistic than before about being released soon.

"Nothing suggested that he would commit suicide, nothing," Mr. Zahrani said.

He said that the account of his son's suicide was "100 percent concocted."

His son was 17 in 2001 when he was apprehended in Afghanistan, where he worked with Islamic charities, he said. He had memorized the Koran since his imprisonment and said he had been behaving, Mr. Zahrani added.

Mr. Zahrani said hundreds of people attended a wake for his son on Sunday night after he had received word of his death from Saudi authorities. His comments about the turnout of mourners underscored the possibility that the return of the bodies to Saudi Arabia and Yemen - should the government allow it - could turn into anti-American events.

Jennifer Daskal, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Sunday that the three suicides "are an indication of the incredible despair that the prisoners are experiencing" after many of them have been "completely cut off from the world."

Her comments were echoed by other critics as well.

General Craddock speculated that the suicides may have been timed to affect the Supreme Court decision on the Hamdan case.

"This may be an attempt to influence the judicial proceedings in that perspective," he told reporters, according to a transcript of his comments during a brief visit to Guantánamo on Sunday.

The investigation into how the three prisoners were able to hang themselves and whether changes in procedures are necessary will be conducted by the commander of the prison, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris.

"There will be an after-action report that will look at whether there was failure of S.O.P.'s or adequate S.O.P.'s that were not followed," said Lieutenant Commander Durand, using the military acronym for standard operating procedures.

The inquiry will probably look at whether procedures requiring guards to observe prisoners at least every two minutes were followed the night of the suicides. Until now, prison officials have voiced confidence that the safeguards were adequate, pointing to the fact that despite dozens of attempted suicides in the last four years, none had been successful.

Guards will now collect bed linens every morning to prevent prisoners from secretly making nooses, Lieutenant Commander Durand said. In addition to possibly revoking permission for detainees to do their own laundry, prison officials are looking at withholding toiletries and other items that might be used in suicide attempts, he added.

"We've got to determine and find the balance between the comfort items that we would like to provide and the point at which comfort items in the possession of a few determined detainees will be turned into something that could contribute to taking their lives," General Craddock said.

There have been recent signs of growing unrest among the prisoners, including an episode in May in which at least two prisoners attempted suicide and another was said to have faked a suicide to lure guards into an ambush.

Several Guantánamo officers said some prisoners had spread the idea of suicide, claiming to have had visions that the prison would not be closed until after three prisoners had died, a possible explanation for the decision by the three men to kill themselves at the same time.

James Yee, a former Islamic chaplain at Guantánamo, said the suicides signaled "an important failure there."

Mr. Yee, who served at Guantánamo when the first of 41 previous suicide attempts occurred said, "The military guards on the block are supposed to check each detainee visually every two minutes or so."

The suicide attempt that came closest to being successful, involving a Saudi schoolteacher who was arrested in Pakistan, where he had attended a militant training camp, was foiled by those procedures, he said.

"At least one guard would have to walk up and down the corridor," he said. "That saved the Saudi detainee. who was in a coma for months." Although the Saudi detainee was not expected to survive, he recovered and has since been sent home.

Mr. Yee, a West Point graduate, was arrested on suspicion of espionage but the charges were dropped. He left the Army after being found guilty of minor infractions and amid overwhelming evidence that the suspicions of espionage were groundless.

Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer representing Jumah Dossari, a Guantánamo inmate who has attempted suicide numerous times, said he had been told that guards were expected to keep close watch on prisoners, observing them every 30 seconds. But he said the procedures were difficult to follow in practice.

While visiting his client last November, he said he found Mr. Dossari in a bathroom trying to hang himself and slit his wrists. Even though a video camera had been installed in the bathroom, Mr. Colangelo-Bryan said guards did not respond until he called them.

Though the Bush administration has been under pressure -from the United Nations, European countries and the International Committee of the Red Cross about the Guantánamo detention center, White House officials did not indicate that they viewed the suicides as a major political problem. The State Department alerted American embassies in Europe and the Middle East, and asked them to contact government officials. But White House officials said Mr. Bush did not make calls to world leaders.

"We haven't heard much response," one senior official said.

The United Nations was also notified of the suicides, the White House said. The U.N.'s Human Rights Commission declined to visit the detention center last year after the Bush administration refused to allow commission members to interview or talk with detainees.

David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington for this article,Hassan M. Fattah from France, and Alan Cowell from London.

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